When months ago I visited the Shadbolt Art Centre for the first time- an Art facility nestled in the scenic Deer Lake Park in Burnaby- I had no idea that the centre was named after two very influential Burnaby artists and art lovers: Jack Shadbolt and his wife, Doris Shadbolt.
So, when on a recent trip to the library I saw a book on Jack Shadbolt by Scott Watson, I didn’t think twice before picking it up.
Born to English parents on the 4th of February 1909 in Shoeburyness- an Essex county village in England- Jack Shadbolt was the second of five children. He moved to Canada with his family in 1912. The idea of immigrating to Canada was his mother’s; a dress maker, a strong, religious Christian woman and the dominant figure in his family whose strict work ethics and perfectionist and religious views would haunt and repress Jack and create in him a restlessness that would drive him to “create” at all times.
He created in order to escape the rigidness of his household and the feeling of inadequacy his mother’s dominant and demanding personality instilled in him. As a child Jack often escaped into nature and the outdoors, he also fled into a world of imagination and fantasy, enjoying exotic, fantastical and oriental tales. He was drawn to the dark and the cruel, and this would later show in his paintings.
Jack’s father was a sign painter and a paper hanger, and Jack often helped him with his work. Between his mother’s dressmaking, his father’s painting, and his sisters’ fondness of playing the piano, Shadbolt grew up in an artistic home. The Shadbolts first lived in Nelson British Columbia for two years, before moving to Victoria.
In addition to commercial art, as a teenager Jack loved sports and even had Olympic aspirations in track and field. In 1927, he enrolled in Victoria College and met Max Maynard. Maynard would become his good friend and first mentor on modern art. His ideas and passion would inspire Jack’s decision to becoming an artist himself. With Maynard, he met Emily Carr and would later write a critique on her work.
The book, A Canadian Art Movement: The Story of the Group of Seven by F. B. Housser’s had a very strong impact on both Jack and Maynard, as the arguments in the book made art seem masculine and heroic at a time when in Victoria, art was in the hands of society women.
In 1931, Jack moved to Vancouver to work as a teacher for one year. During that time he took courses with one of his idols, Fred Varley, a founding member of the Group of Seven. Unfortunately, this would turn out to be a humiliating and depressing experience for him as Varley continued to ignore him, refusing to critique his work until finally at the end of the course he simply ripped Jack’s drawings and tossed them to the ground. Shadbolt would later have the habit of destroying his own paintings.
Jack Shadbolt would continue to move around and travel, teaching, visiting exhibitions, taking courses, all in order to mature as an artist. He studied in New York, Paris and London, and even contemplated traveling to Mexico to study under Diego Rivera whose mural Man at the Crossroads of Civilization was removed from the Rockefeller Centre during Jack’s stay in New York.
Shadbolt experimented with various styles and techniques. However, he remained restless about his art and as his role as an artist, feeling very strongly that art must address universal issues, express the human condition and be veered toward social engagement.
He is quoted in Scott Waston’s book to say:
“I think of painting as something essentially noble and dignified- of necessity cold and aloof in its essence yet animated by passionate human motives- something where color and form and the inevitable ‘architectural’ elements take control… There is no softness in art. There is tenderness. There is voluptuousness… there is sometimes the greatness and severity of the controlling impulse- the tremendous charge of the spirit that rules with titanic majesty and sweeps all the resources of the painter into a unity and its ultimate dignity.”
Jack enlisted in the army as a signalman in 1942. In May 1944 instead of getting a job as an official war artist, he landed the position of a narrator. He would later eventually get the job of a war artist. The war in 1945 deeply troubled him, and when he was transferred overseas to London, he assisted with administration duties and witnessed the ruins that were the result of the war.
He documented his impressions by sketching the destruction that bombs left behind. His job as a war artist meant that he had to look at photographs from concentration camps that were sent to him daily as the army documented its advance. The images were violent, cruel and devastating, and his job was to catalogue and sort them.
He painted the local scene in Vancouver in a series he called The Canadian Scene.
In 1947 he moved away from the social realism of pictures in The Canadian Scene and returned to the theme of war. He painted a mural for The United Service Recreation Centre called About Town with the United Services. The mural which no longer exists took six months to finish. During this period, he would combine the destruction he saw in London with scenes and buildings in Vancouver. Some of my personal favorite works of his include his drawings of dogs among ruins; the accidental survivors of the war and the symbolic representations of the aggressive forces that controlled the world at the time.
Jack often drew from Medieval, Oceanic, Native and African sources. He would later engage in drawing masks and bird skeletons. This came after a period in which Jack had spent time sketching driftwood on the beach, stumps and tangled branches at Buccaneer Bay. These images were figurative abstractions of the bones and skeletons of a mutilated man.
In 1948, his exhibition in the Art Gallery of Toronto revealed his stylistic transition from realism to expressionism while employing symbolism in his art. This shift put him in the public eye as one of Canada’s important modern painters and a national and international contributor to abstraction and Canadian art.
Jack Shadbolt passed away at the age of 89, on November 22, 1998. His development as an artist and his motifs can be traced by looking at his paintings. Scott Watson’s book includes a wealth of information on the artist and some of his most beautiful work.